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Wave of optimism


In July, Antigua welcomes 262 young sailors to compete in the Optimist World Championship. Paul Bloomfield meets the island’s ambitious head coach and some of his talented team

Stroll along the waterfront at Antigua’s Falmouth Harbour on a Saturday or Sunday morning and you’ll likely see an inspiring vision. A dozen or so curiously square-bowed little sailing dinghies, each helmed by a young boy or girl, scoot across the water: they tack, they circle, they duck beneath swinging booms, they lean and they heel. It’s a picturesque delight to watch.

Come in early July, though, and you can expect to be overwhelmed: instead of a handful of small sails, you’ll be confronted by more than 200, skippered by young people between the ages of 12 and 15. Over the 11 days of the 2019 Optimist World Championship, the top sailors of the planet’s largest sailboat class will battle it out in the balmy waters of southern Antigua – and it’s set to be a special event for competitors, spectators and Antigua itself.

“This is a big thing for the whole island,” smiles Paola Vittoria, organiser of the event, herself an Olympic sailor who represented Antigua. “We’ve had big boat sailing races here before, but never such an event as this – a one-design class world competition involving 64 nations (a new record!) and more than 250 young sailors.”

To understand why such a small boat is such a big deal, you need to learn a bit about the Optimist. The ‘Opti’, as it’s affectionately known, is a pram (blunt-bowed dinghy) 7ft 9in long (2.36m), with a single mainsail on a mast at the bow. Developed in Florida in 1946 for an ‘Orange Crate Derby’, in 1973 the Optimist pram developed into the International Optimist, with production of the GRP fibreglass boat and the standardisation of the class rules.

The International Optimist Dinghy Association (IODA), also the governing body for international competition, is the largest sailing class in the world. For over 60 years the Optimist has been the pre-eminent class of boat for young people to start sailing, from the age of six or seven up to 15. With members in more than 110 countries worldwide, IODA ensures that all Optimist-class boats are equal, introducing children to the sport of sailing at an affordable price. IODA embraces the World Sailing goals of gender equality, protecting the environment, and education for all sailors. Children learn to be self-reliant, to understand the value of fair play, and to care for the world’s oceans and lakes.

Don’t be fooled by the boat’s size or simple appearance, though: the Optimist is the launchpad for most of the world’s top sailors, as Karl James, Manager of Youth Training at the Antigua Yacht Club, explains.
“The Optimist is quite technical, but suitable for young people, helping them master the fundamentals of sailing,” he says. “Because children start in Optimists at such a young age, by the time they’re 15 they might have been racing internationally all over the world for four, five, even six years already. If you look at successful Olympians, most have begun their sailing in the Optimist class,” he adds. Indeed, some 85% of boat skippers at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, were former Optimist sailors.

Karl, who has taught hundreds of Antiguans to sail during his 25-plus years at the yacht club, knows well what it means to progress from small beginnings to the top level. “I started sailing at age 12,” he recalls. “I grew up in English Harbour, and as a little boy I watched people sail out of Nelson’s Dockyard. I’d join lots of young boys on the dock hoping to get picked as crew. I was lucky, and gained experience on the big boats; then, when I thought I knew sailing, one captain said to me: I want to see you sail a Sunfish [a small dinghy], to determine just how good a sailor you are. I guess it’s a bit like what go-karting is to Formula 1.”

Karl went on to represent Antigua in the Laser class at two Olympic Games, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, and it was around that time he recognised the opportunity that Optimist sailing offers.

“When we started the youth programme at the Antigua Yacht Club, we had only Lasers – primarily an adult boat,” he says. “But then 20 years ago we introduced Optimists, traditionally sailed by 6-15-year-olds, and that allowed our young sailors to develop properly.”

It’s just a few years since Antiguan Optimist sailors started competing successfully on the international stage, as Paola reveals. “In 2012, we took three kids to the Optimist World Championship in the Dominican Republic – one was my son, Rocco Falcone [who came second in the 2015 North American Championship],” she recalls. “The Antiguan team was really unknown then. When some of the other competitors saw our World Sailing Country Code, ANT, they asked if we were from Antarctica!”

But the Optimist programme has developed astonishingly quickly since those days. From having just a few young sailors, over the past few months some 20 skippers have vied for the privilege of representing Antigua at the 2019 Optimist World Championship in July – and with just five places available, competition has been fierce. But so is the spirit of Antigua’s young sailors.

“We are taught, in most sports and in school, that there are rules to adhere to. But in sailing there’s really only one rule: you can’t sail directly into the wind. The challenge is getting young people to understand the importance of being open-minded – you have to allow yourself to learn the essentials of sailing, then open your mind to solve new problems. Sailing is a fluid sport – you have to deal with tides, varying wind strength, sudden squalls, and so on. The field of play is always changing, requiring constant adjustments by the athletes.”

Challenging, yes – but clearly worthwhile: “When you are able to help a child understand how to adapt to change, it’s really rewarding,” Karl smiles. “You know, even after 40 years of sailing, I’m still learning new things – and that’s a reason why the great sailors today still have coaches, to help them to continue learning.”

Karl is confident that this generation of youngsters are on the verge of something special. “I’m now feeling like my long-term coaching work is starting to come to fruition,” he says proudly. “The number of young sailors we’re producing on the island is tremendous.”

“In April we took five young people – Shanoy Malone, Theodore Spencer, Sue Agusti, Maurice Belgrave and Orzani Lafond – to the South American Championship in Chile, which was a great learning experience,” Karl adds. “That helped our sailors, none of whom had been to a continental championship before, understand what’s involved in a big event with a longer format – most of the regattas they’d competed in lasted two or three days, whereas a continental event is seven days. It was cold for our guys, too – just 13°–19°C on land, with water temperatures around 13°C, compared with around 30°C and 25°C in Antigua.”

Karl is hopeful that the team’s experience in Chile will feed into the World Championship at home. “My expectation is that even if this group of guys we’re preparing don’t win at this World Championship, they’ll see what they need to do to win in future. Most of these guys have a few more years to develop within this class – our competitors are between 11 and 14 years old, with some of the best still at the younger end of the range.”

For many of these boys and girls, the Optimist championships are just the beginning. “Antiguan youth sailors typically graduate to Laser or 29er sailing, and many have gone on to compete in top-level events,” says Karl. “Antiguan professionals such as Shannon Falcone and Louis Sinclair, both America’s Cup sailors, inspire young Antiguans, giving them hope of getting into the big time.”

For now, though, the focus is on the eight days of Optimist racing that will light up Falmouth and English Harbours in July. “We’ll have a beautiful opening ceremony,” says Paola, “bringing the Antiguan community together with dancing, music, fireworks, and a (very short!) speech. We’ll have a parade from Antigua Yacht Club to Nelson’s Dockyard with all the teams, carrying the national signs.

“The whole event will be a great spectacle for visitors,” Paola continues, “with four or five fleets of about 65 boats each competing in three races daily. You’ll be able to see the races from Shirley Heights, Fort Berkeley or Fort Charlotte, and there will be great views from Snapper Point – take a picnic and some drinks! Alternatively, come to the marina, where we’ll have big screens: each boat will also have a tracking device so people can follow the races from there.”

Though the regatta will provide excitement for spectators and competitors, at the heart of the event is the desire to nurture the island’s youth. “The aim of the championship is to promote youth sailing worldwide,” says Paola. “We’re aiming to provide the best environment to build friendships among competitors. It’s so important, to meet people from all over the world, and to develop lasting friendships. For me it’s important that we contribute to the healthy growth of a young generation.”

Meet the sailors

Two of the young Antiguans competing in the 2019 Optimist World Championship share their thoughts about sailing

Theodore Spencer aged 12
When did you start sailing?
I’ve been sailing Optimist for four years.
How often do you train?
We train three times a week at the Antigua Yacht Club, on Saturdays, Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons.
What do you like about sailing?
It’s great to be with my friends, and I love to be on the water.
What’s great about your island?
I love sailing in Antigua – it’s really warm, and always windy! But I’ve heard a lot about Lake Garda in Italy – I’d like to try sailing there.
What is your competition experience so far?
My first regatta was in Martinique in February 2017. I qualified but came 21st out of 35. Then, at the Sol Sint Maarten Optimist Championship in November 2018, competing against 34 other sailors, I won! I learned a lot from the people I met, as well as competing in a bigger overseas regatta. Sailing against people from other countries was much more competitive.
What are your future plans?
I’d like to continue sailing as I get older, visiting new places and meeting new people. I’ll maybe move onto Lasers or 29ers, or even bigger boats. I’ve tried a light Laser, and a 17-20 with other Antiguan sailors. I’d like to continue sailing in competitions – to experience how tense the big competitions are.
What’s your advice for someone considering Optimist sailing?
Keep it simple – don’t worry or be afraid about falling in the water. Just have fun! There’s nothing to be scared of.

Shanoy Malone, aged 11
When did you start sailing?
My grandfather and father sailed, and one day I saw them out on a boat and said: I want to try that. So I started sailing at Antigua Yacht Club. I’ve been sailing Optimist since I was six years old!
What do you like about sailing?
Sailing isn’t like football, where thousands of people around the world play. Sailing is a rare sport – not many people do it. Sailing Optimist isn’t like sailing a big boat, where there might be 10 people. On an Optimist, you always have to be aware of things – someone who was miles behind might pass you, because they saw something that you didn’t. So you always have to have an eye out for opportunities on the water.
What is your competition experience so far?
I competed in Sint Maarten three times, and Martinique twice. At my first regatta in Sint Maarten, I came sixth – but it was kinda challenging that year, because it was pretty windy, and I was still quite small. You need to be fit in those situations.
What are your hopes for the World Championship?
Antigua has a pretty strong team now – everyone here knows what to do in different situations. We’re well prepared, and one of the top teams in the Caribbean region. In Sint Maarten last November, we dominated – among the amateur sailors, we came first, second, third, fourth and fifth, and in the advanced we came first, second and third. So we have a pretty good chance in the World Championship.
What are your future plans?
When I’ve finished sailing Optimist, I’ll try 29er or Laser, and hopefully race internationally in bigger boats. My aim eventually is to be a captain of one of the America’s Cup boats. I’m inspired particularly by two sailors. First, my dad, Shawn Malone, who sailed Lasers for Antigua – I want to live up to his standards. Also Peter Burlings, from the New Zealand team – he’s done Laser, Moth, Optimist, won Olympic gold in the 49er class in 2016, and been in a winning crew in the America’s Cup.
What’s your advice for someone considering Optimist sailing?
I’d say: just go for it! You can’t be afraid – if you’re afraid, there’s no point.